First come DIY detectives, then pay-as-you go policing

Better brush up on your sleuthing skills. Casey Fleser, CC BY

An alarming report from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary has revealed that some police forces have simply given up investigating some types of crime, instead calling on the general public to become DIY detectives.

But while it is bad enough that civilians are being expected to step in to fill the boots of the police they used to rely on, we can also expect this situation to get worse if cuts are not reversed. If the government doesn’t pay to protect people, then they will have to pay for themselves.

High-volume types of offences like car crime, criminal damage and non-residential burglaries are particularly prone to being crossed off the lists of police authorities and left to the man or woman on the street to handle. These crimes are, in essence, on the verge of being decriminalised, the report warned.

Roger Baker, the Inspector of Constabulary who led the investigation into this situation said that police forces have “almost given up” and that it will be increasingly difficult to catch criminals if this situation continues. He stopped short of blaming individual officers, but highlighted a more general mindset that is spreading across police teams.

The report found that only six of the 43 police forces in England and Wales still have a policy of sending an officer to attend all reported crimes. For the remaining 37 forces, a call handler uses set criteria to assess whether an officer should be sent to the scene of a crime. But the report said this was “unacceptable” because call handlers were found to lack appropriate training to make decisions like this. All forces now have until September next year to make sure all staff are appropriately trained.

The report also concluded that desk-based investigations now mean “little (or nothing) more than recording a crime without taking further action”.

Clearly, the drop in police investigations and the rise of the DIY detective have come as a result of the £2.4 billion budget cut suffered by the police force since the coalition government began its austerity programme in the summer of 2011.

The latest figures show that 14,186 police officer jobs have so far been lost since the general election. A total reduction of 31,600, including civilian staff in the police workforce, is planned by March 2015.

This report now confirms that we should indeed be concerned about the plight of the police. It raises questions about who decides which crimes are worthy of full investigation and which are not. It raises doubts, too, about how safe people feel if they know certain crimes are not going to be investigated.

A cynical point of view might lead us to conclude that a gap is emerging between those who can afford to be safe and those who can’t. Some can pay for their crimes to be investigated by private firms or to protect themselves against becoming victims in the first place, while others can’t. As the report says, postcode lottery is emerging already, where police responses to the same type of crime will differ depending on where you live. Clearly, we are not all getting the same level of protection.

All this strongly indicates that the coalition government must invest more in public services such as policing, and that this investment must be made in a way that benefits everyone. What’s more, it is only by listening to the clarion call for more police visibility that confidence and trust in the ability of the police to solve crime will rise.

Police and policing must of course undergo radical change in an age of austerity, but that shouldn’t mean that the local policeman should be replaced by the people they are supposed to protect. If this situation is allowed to continue, we will not only see a reduction in the number of crimes being solved but the emergence of a two-tier justice system. Those who feel the cuts the hardest will be those who don’t have the means to pay to protect themselves.